Cities Are Back!
America's Mayors Discuss "Urban Renaissance"
By Jubi D. Headley, Jr.
April 30, 2001
The opening session of the 2001 New Jersey Conference of Mayors didn't just celebrate the 'renaissance' of America's cities. It focused on the key ingredients for this "urban turnaround," as one researcher has called it, and the mayor's role in fostering that success, as well as challenges that cities continue to face.
At left, Newark Mayor Sharpe James makes remarks on "urban renaissance" during opening media forum as Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown listens.
Conference of Mayors Executive Director J. Thomas Cochran moderated this media forum, entitled "From Urban Blight to Urban Bright" and co-sponsored by the United States Conference of Mayors and the New Jersey Conference of Mayors. "We are very encouraged by data from the recent census; for first time in 50 years we have an influx of population into our cities," Cochran said in opening the session. "Even in cities where population declined, there was in general less decline than in any of the previous four decades. At this rate, even in the Rust Beltin five years the Rust Belt will be gold."
"When you look at the economy of the U. S., it's still number one in the world," Cochran continued. "But what's driving this growth? If you look at the map, and draw circles our metro economic areaslooking at Lexington, Kentucky for example, that metro economy isn't only impacting the state of Kentucky, but also Indiana as well. Just as in this area, you can't separate the economy of Philadelphia from the economy of Trenton, or Camden. When people spend money it doesn't stop at the state line."
The presentations by the six mayors on the panel shed light on a number of strategies that mayors have employed in cities to reduce crime, encourage investment, and bring about the 'urban renaissance.'
Newark Shares Ideas, Beast Practices with Other Mayors Contribute to Newark's "Turnaround"
"Newark has had riotswe burned down $50 million ourselves, in 1967we've had a major population exodus, an eroding tax base, and poor city services," Newark Mayor Sharpe James. "And we turned it all around." The 2000 Census found Newark reversing a decades-old trend of heavy population lossNewark lost just 1,675 residents in the 1990's, less than one percent of its population. Mayor James in part credited his ability to bring about change in his city to the resources he was able to obtain through the United States Conference of Mayors.
Specifically, James praised the work of the Conference, and of mayors across the country, in securing passage of the 1994 crime bill, which provided cities across the nation with resources to fight crime by hiring more police officers, and upgrading equipment and technology to better track and prevent crime. "We used to have one of the highest crime rates in the nation," James said. "But the resources we got through the crime billI was there with you, Tom (referring to Conference Executive Director J. Thomas Cochran) when you led the mayors to get this passedwere a major part of this. Now, I look at the top-ten crime lists, and I can't even find our city on them."
Mayor James also praised Atlantic City Mayor James Whelan for his support and assistance in helping Mayor James to secure the funding to build a stadium, modeled after Camden Yards in Baltimore, regarded by many as one of the best minor league baseball stadiums in the nation. "When I thought I couldn't do it, Mayor Whelan came to Newark and said, 'yes, you can,'" Mayor James said. "I get the credit for building the stadium, but much of it belongs to him." Mayor James cited Mayor Whelan's as one example of the best practices he's been given by mayors across the nation, which he's adapted for use in his own city.
Mayor James also emphasized the importance of increasing home ownership in America's cities. "When people become home owners, they become empowered," Mayor James said. "They become the neighborhood's best cops."
Mayor James cites improving public schools and the continuing drug crisis as two challenges his city faces. He also cites taxes as an issue, maintaining that taxes should be lower for central city residents when that city provides public infrastructure and resources (such as courthouses, public universities, roads, and the like) for many surrounding communities.
Oakland: Using Charter Schools to Provide Better Educational Opportunities for Youth is a Key Ingredient in Success
"Oakland's comeback is being driven by immigration, lots of wealth creation and investment," said Mayor Jerry Brown. "Our unemployment rate is 4 percent. Unemployment isn't an issue. We have more jobs than we have people."
Mayor Brown cited schools as Oakland's greatest challenge. "If you take the six high schools, and look at the ninth grade class over a period of, say, three years, you'll see that roughly 4,000 go into the ninth grade; roughly 1600 graduateabout 43 percent. Only ten percent go on to four year college." Mayor Brown feels that the very structure of the educational system only serves to contribute to this problem. "If somehow by a miracle of leadership all those students graduated, they'd have to put tents up in the school yard," Mayor Brown said. "The system adapts to and has incorporated a design for failure. To turn that around would mean disrupting the comfortable folk who run the schools."
Mayor Brown sees charters schools as a major part of the answer. He has just launched a Military Charter School in Oakland. "It goes against my 'moonbeam' image," Brown quipped. "But I decided it's better to be 'macho' than 'moonbeam.'" The school has received funding of more than $2 million from the U. S. Department of Defense, and another $1 million from the state of California. Requiring that the students wear uniforms, setting school hours from 7:30am to 6:00pm, holding classes every other Saturday and instituting a mandatory summer program are all unique features of this landmark school. There will be two adults in every classroom, and teachers will be required to have a minimum of 5 years of experience. Mayor Brown is also working on plans to open a charter school in Oakland for the performing arts, and another one to train students to work in the hospitality industry (a similar model exists in Washington, DC).
As to the resources it took to help bring about Oakland's turnaround, Mayor Brown was pragmatic. "Money helps. But behind the money is a lot of creativity."
Trenton: Hotel, Schools, Stadium Development Changes the Landscape of New Jersey's Capital City
Trenton Mayor Douglas Palmer noted that one of the greatest recent successes in his city has been to secure the development of a Marriott hotel and conference center, scheduled to open next March. "It used to be that mayors and other folks I met around the country would tell me they were planning to visit my city, and I'd tell them you're not going to be able to get a hotel room," Palmer said. "They would be surprised and ask me, 'Is there that much tourism and convention business going on in Trenton?' I'd just respond, 'All I'm saying is, you can't get a hotel room in my city,' Palmer quipped to audience laughter. "This is a major move forward for us." New Jersey's capital city has also seen other major developments, such as a new stadium on Trenton's waterfront, and the building of six new schools, in addition to the renovation of sixteen others.
Gains In Crime Reduction
Mayor Palmer also noted that his city has made great gains in reducing crime. Trenton has recently instituted a police-director form of government, which makes for a police department that works in better partnership with and is more responsive to its citizens. Palmer and others believe that the move will produce dramatic reductions in crime in Trenton over the next several years.
Still, Palmer sees the 'perception and reality' of crime as an ongoing challenge, and feels that federal support for cities' efforts to reduce crime are essential to success. "That's why I'm hoping that President Bush will continue to fund and support a program that has worked successfully for mayors across the country: COPS," Palmer said. (The Community Oriented Policing Services Program, or COPS as it is commonly known, provides funds to cities to hire and train more police officers, buy new equipment and better crime-fighting technology.)
Other challenges Trenton faces include ensuring continued investment in the cityresources for cleanup and redevelopment of brownfields, for example are sorely needed. And the city's increasing diversity, Palmer said, presents not a challenge but an opportunity. "With 72 different ethnic groups in Trenton, and the landscape of our neighborhoods dramatically changing, we must work to continue to respect and value diversity, so that rather than become dozens of disjointed communities within one set of borders, we can remain one blended, productive city," Palmer said.
Dearborn: Impact of Historic Investment Levels is seen in Increased Property Values, Level Tax Rates
"Cities are where the people want to be. The urban sprawl of the eighties is really retreating now," Dearborn Mayor Michael Guido said in his remarks. "People don't want a two-hour daily commute; they want to be where the action is, and cities provide that for them."
This return to the cities, Guido asserts, has led to new levels of investment in Dearborn. For example, the city of Dearborn is building a community and performing arts center that, when it opens, will be the largest municipally owned facility of its kind in North America. And last year, plans were unveiled for the redevelopment of the historic Ford Rouge Center in Dearborn. The Ford Motor Company, headquartered in Dearborn, has committed an impressive $2 billion to this effort. The complex will be powered by a new $240 million natural gas energy center.
In fact, new construction in Dearborn has achieved record levels. Just last year ground was broken on Cedar Village, a new neighborhood on the site of an abandoned steel plant. The redevelopment of this site will increase its value from less than $800,000 to more than $12 million. This is just one example of how Mayor Guido's efforts to attract investment to his city have had measurable, tangible results. During Mayor Guido's four terms in office, the total assessed value of all property in the city has increased more than 231 percent. And for the last eleven years, the city's operating tax rate has remained level or been reduced. At the same time, Mayor Guido has balanced every city budget he's been responsible fora hallmark of the 'entrepreneurial' city CEO.
As for challenges Mayor Guido faces in Dearborn? "It's an election year," Guido quipped. "Enough said."
Woodbridge: Helping Business Navigate the 'Labyrinth' of Government
The City of Woodbridge (NJ) has 800 acres of brownfields, as well as elements of pollution and "industrial desecration," says Woodbridge Mayor James McGreevey, citing one of the city's greatest challenges. McGreevey feels long-term pilots and payments in lieu of taxes, extended over 25-35 years, will be necessary to offset the costs of remediation in order to make sites competitive for development with greenfield sites in neighboring communities.
But the city has also achieved a great measure of success. For example, through the Woodbridge Tech 2000 Initiative, all public schools have been wired, not only for coordinated access to Internet, but for distance learning opportunities as well. Mayor McGreevey also cited the work of the Woodbridge Economic Development Corporation as key to the city's success. "This is an excellent model of a public/private partnership," Mayor McGreevey said. "One of the challenges business faces is moving through the labyrinth of government bureaucracy and regulations, at all levels. What we in Woodbridge pride ourselves on is providing businesses with one-stop shopping, with a gateway to the resources and assistance available to them." This role as facilitator for business development in the city, McGreevey noted, has been a key factor in business growth and investment in his city.
Atlantic City: City Demographics Mirror the 'Future of America'
Another New Jersey city, Atlantic City, has seen a significant increase in population, which has grown 3.7 percent, most of it in the second half of the decade. Mayor James Whelan believes that providing affordable housing opportunities to his residents is one key to this growth. "We've gotten away from putting people in large clusters of public housing; that doesn't work," Whelan said. "We've moved toward providing affordable home ownership opportunities for a larger number of our families in Atlantic City." A significant portion of the resources for this successful home ownership effort were provided through a HOPE VI grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, further testimony to the importance of the federal government as a partner in promoting investment in America's 'economic engines.'
Reduced crime has also been critical to Atlantic City's comeback path. Overall, crime in Atlantic City has been reduced by 5 percent in the last year; violent crime is down an impressive 15 percent. Schools remain a challenge for the city, as does "intractable" unemployment and a lingering "culture of defeat," as Mayor Whelan put it, historically related to problems of public housing in the city.
But one of the greatest impacts on Atlantic City over the past decade, Mayor Whelan feels, has been its increased diversity, fueled by large numbers of Hispanic and to lesser extent Asian immigrants. "We're now one of those cities that represents the future of America," Mayor Whelan said. "We have no majority ethnic group." The city is approximately 45 percent African American, 26 percent Hispanic, and 25 percent Caucasian (Asians make up the majority of the remaining population). "Demographers tell us that's the future of America," Whelan said.
Mayor Whelan feels that this new demographic landscape in America's cities is one component of a 'sea change' in American culture. Whelan cited cities such as San Francisco, Oakland, Denver, and Gary as cities where the elected mayor is of a different ethnicity than the majority of the city's residents. "People aren't voting along ethnic and racial lines anymore. They're voting for the individual."
Six presentations, six mayors, six very different citiesall demonstrating that creativity is definitely a key ingredient in the renaissance of America's cities.